Animals saved but future of popular Wing’s Wildlife Park in doubt after huge flood

Animals saved but future of popular Wing's Wildlife Park in doubt after huge flood

Amid the chaos of Tasmania’s recent flooding, the family that owns Wing’s Wildlife Park at Gunns Plains was cut off from animals and on-site staff.

After an anxious and emotional 48 hours, they regained access on October 15 and found their animals safe, along with the staff and residents who tirelessly watched out for them.

But in that moment of relief, they realize the future of their popular tourist attraction was now very much in doubt.

Beautiful Gunns Plains in north-west Tasmania with the Leven River back to meandering slowly through it.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

“Everything is up in the air at the moment,” Wing’s Wildlife Park manager Gena Cantwell, whose parents Colin and Megan Wing founded the park 36 years ago, said.

“Our focus was to just get in, get the animals, and make sure they were OK.

A woman speaking to camera with two Tasmanian devils behind
Gena Cantwell says her family have to have some tough conversations about the future of the park.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

“We’ve done that but over the coming weeks we’re going to have to sit down and have some tough conversations about where we go from here.

“The buildings, the Wildlife Park infrastructure, we can’t get insurance for that. We did have in 2011 and 2016 but now, nobody is offering.”

A flood of help comes in

As one flood receded, a second began; this time a flood of volunteers who headed to all points of the park almost as soon as the road in became passable.

A twisted and damaged concrete footbridge, with creek passing underneath.
This footbridge at Wing’s Wildlife Park was hit by a huge tree stump, causing the center of the park to flood.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

One Launceston building firm provided seven builders, while machinery operators volunteered time and invaluable earthmovers.

Staff, locals, and friends of the park all gave their time to shovel mud and pile up the drowned appliances, merchandise, and materials.

Colin and Megan Wing’s grandchildren were right among it too.

“Even Dad, he’s a tough guy farmer. Everyone knows him and says he’s grumpy but the marmosets were his number one thing,” Ms Cantwell said.

“We’ve got babies in there and he said, ‘We’ve got to get food in their tummies and we’ve got to get them warm’.

Two meerkats standing up tall on alert, look out through a glass fronted enclosure.
Meerkats watch on from their enclosure as the flood clean-up continues.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

“He was speechless, just desperate to get in there. To see him so caught up in that … yeah, it is tough.”

Family’s long history in the valley

Eight generations of the Wing family have lived and grown up in the Gunns Plains valley, about 20 kilometers south of Ulverstone.

A wet road passes a completely flooded farm.
The west side of the valley at Gunns Plains on the day the Leven River flooded, two weeks ago.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

When Ms Cantwell was a child, her parents would hook up a caravan at their dairy farm on the east side of the valley and tow it across the Leven River to their other property in the north-west corner.

There was a dairy at each property for a time and then the idea for the wildlife park took hold.

Flood has been an ongoing concern but Ms Cantwell feels as though the nature and seasonality of the floods has been changing.

The water that hit the park was so powerful that it lifted and broke concrete slabs, and twisted a concrete and metal bridge.

Aerial view of a cluster of commercial buildings and dwellings at the wildlife park.
An overview of the wildlife park’s cafe and other buildings, including the many on-site shacks and houses.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

It moved animal enclosures and filled office and shop areas with 30 centimeters of mud, all in a chaotic rush in the very early morning.

It happened even before the much bigger Leven River had broken its banks during the morning of October 13, flooding about half of the farmland in the valley and cutting off access to the wildlife park.

Storm damage snowballing in 2022

Recent wind storms had left a lot of trees down in bushland above the park.

A woman in work shirt and cap holding a Tasmanian devil in her arms.
Nicole Mason, the park’s senior wildlife keeper, was on site when the floods happened.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

Though debris had been cleared from the small Walloa Creek to the edge of the property, some big timber washed down from further into the wild forest above that.

“A massive stump got caught up at the bridge and then more came along slamming into it like missiles,” Ms Cantwell said.

“Our senior wildlife keeper, Nicole [Mason] had been updating us every hour by phone and then by radio when we lost power.

“It was all what we expected, a regular flood, sandbags in place just in case. Then 4am, 4:30am, water was suddenly pouring through the buildings.”

A Tasmanian devil looks up towards the camera from a grassy enclosure.
A Tasmanian devil enjoying the sun after the floods.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)